Northern Ireland

NI rates arrears reach record levels

The BBC has learned that rates arrears in Northern Ireland have soared to record levels of more than £157m.

The figure has been steadily rising, from £48m in 2006 to £124m in late 2008 and £138m in 2009.

About two-thirds of the current arrears are owed by non-domestic ratepayers like businesses, shops and factories.

The rest is owed by domestic payers. Rates arrears in Northern Ireland are higher relatively than those owed to local authorities in England.

Last year, a record number of people, about 16,000, were taken to court for not paying their rates.

The amount of debt that has been written off is also increasing. It is understood that £10m was written off last year in comparison to £6m the year before.

The body responsible for collecting rates, Land and Property Services, has come under scrutiny in the past.

In March 2009, then finance minister Nigel Dodds ordered a review amid growing concern over its performance.

However, Iain Greenaway of the service said the economic downturn meant many businesses were struggling to pay.

"I am concerned - my job is to collect the rates that fund council services and Executive services such as health and education," he said.

"The economic situation has not been good, we have people genuinely struggling to pay.

"In our Ballymena office they reckon last week was their worst week ever in terms of the number of ratepayers on the phone struggling to work out how they can pay their rates."

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